#22: The uncertainty of poultry

How to handle not knowing what the birds at the back of the freezer are—plus a consideration of Great (and also merely good) pizza and what pizza teaches us about uncertainty and innovation.

I’m an author, organizational sociologist, strategy professor, unsuccessful furniture maker, and Xoogler—this is yet another of my attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing.


Finally! Politicians, mainstream media, and electorates are beginning to take coronavirus threat seriously and act on it. Would have been better sooner, but better late than never. In the UK, there are early indications that restrictions on mobility and gatherings might have been applied (barely) in time.

Here in London, we’ve been on so-called lockdown for 8 days. It is quite benign for those of us not on the healthcare frontlines: infrequent grocery shopping and daily outdoor exercise are both permitted.

For most of that time, the skies have been blue and cloudless—for some, the frustrations of being stuck indoors after a grey winter will be overwhelming. However, being largely homebound by social and practical decree has had some unexpected and positive side effects.

In the age of Zoom, I now see people every week that I would normally only see once a year. Many people seem to be cooking a lot—I get multiple daily doses of food photography from around the world (on WhatsApp). Instagram has declined in relevance, replaced by Twitter (my current default source for intelligent analysis of coronavirus impact). Some people are reporting massive spikes in productivity, turning paper revisions around and submitting new papers at a frankly alarming rate.

I, on the other hand, have de-iced the freezer and discovered a pair of small birds that I can neither identify nor remember buying. Here’s one of them:


What should one do when one is uncertain about poultry?

The problem is not knowing what they are, because this means not knowing how they will respond to heat.

Being able to cook well is in large part about understanding the properties which allow a given material to be good for particular uses, and which often make it less good or bad for other uses—the material’s affordances.

If you don’t know what something is, it’s hard to know how to cook it properly: there’s no way to figure out what its affordances are.


I have long had a minor interest in pizza that, under lockdown, has bloomed into a potentially life-threatening obsession.

There is edible pizza everywhere, and there’s even pretty decent pizza most places (even in London)—but truly Great pizza is nearly impossible to find. So far, and this is of course purely my personal opinion, Ops in Brooklyn and Hail Mary in Los Angeles are top of the heap even in context of modern Japanese pizza. Neither Ops nor Hail Mary makes a classic Neapolitan style pizza, and neither uses the officially approved, highly refined, flavor-free, 00 flours that have taken over the premium pizza world.

Below, you see a profusely alliumed pizza from Ops, and a marinara from Hail Mary. On a good day, the textures of these pizzas will be unlike most others you’ve had and they’ll make you want to return as often as possible.

If you live near Bushwick or Atwater Village, you’re in luck—both are still cooking pizzas and you can stop in to get one to go. It will not have escaped your notice that both are at least an ocean away from me at the moment.

Making Great pizza is hard because it requires real and deep knowledge of

  • How different flours (made from different wheats) behave when made into doughs at different levels of hydration and with different fermentation regimes—so you can blend the flour and mix the dough to achieve the desired texture and flavor given the constraints of available fermentation space and time.

  • How to physically manipulate the shaping and final opening up of different textured dough balls—so you can make pizzas that have consistent thinness in the center (for a quick, crisp cook) while preserving delicious aeration in the rim (crisp, yet tender, yet with an appealing chewiness).

  • Where to source good ingredients—so you can create dough, sauces, and toppings that have actual flavor.

  • How the texture and moisture content of toppings and sauces individually and in combination affect how they cook—so you can design pizzas that cook well and eat easily. (Instead of pizzas where every bite causes poorly attached, imperfectly cooked toppings with discordant textures to fall off the slice and onto the plate or into your lap. We’ve all been there.)

  • How the oven floor and chamber temperature interacts with cooking time and movement of the pizza within the oven—so you can cook the pizza such that the base becomes crisp and well-colored, just as the rim sets and scorches slightly and the toppings and the sauce cook to the desired level.

Each item on this list represents a mini-constellation of affordances that a pizzamaker must understand in detail to make Great pizza. Flour, dough, tomatoes, cheese are all materials; the choices available for each are many in number, and each behaves in slightly different ways. The list is not even near complete.

But nothing on the list is inherently hard to understand.

Developing detailed understandings of material affordances is what cooks, both at home and in the professional kitchen, have done for centuries. As Jane Grigson says, “for good food, one needs to understand that a Cox’s Orange Pippin in a pie will give you a quite different result from a Bramley.”

One silver lining of the lockdown is having ample time to explore the affordances of various flours, doughs, and sauces.

What you see below is a relatively quickly fermented pizza dough made from YQ and Paragon flours, sauced with crushed canned peeled tomatoes from La Russolillo, and topped with wild garlic and sour cream. It was baked in a crummy home oven on a preheated steel very close to the top heating element. Though not Great, it was good enough that it’s getting harder to resist making pizza every day.

What this means is significantly above-average pizza is available to all who are willing to put some time and effort into finding decent materials and figuring out how to use them.

This is fortunate because most pizza restaurants don’t seem to care enough to invest the time and effort into learning what materials are available to them and what their affordances are. This may be why there are so many average or competent pizzas out there. Many of them will be made with well-understood, reliable flours, sauces, and topping ingredients. Working in established ways with well-understood materials is a way to circumvent the experimentation and failure involved in trying to learn new ways to work with new materials.

But it rarely, if ever, produces Great pizza.


The work that teaches a cook about a material’s affordances is not only about access to transcendence. More practically, it also provides opportunities for innovation. New dishes become possible when a previously unknown affordance for a known ingredient is discovered, or when the affordances of ingredients that have never been used before are discovered.

Great pizzamakers can take pizza where it hasn’t been before because they’ve invested time and effort in R&D—in searching for more and different affordances for flours, doughs, sauces, toppings, and ovens.

Real innovation results from discovering new affordances. This is true not just in cooking but in the context of any innovation effort at all—whether it is learning how to do something new with an existing programming language (or reagent, or power tool, or narrative form) or developing a new programming language (or reagent, or power tool, or narrative form).

It is also true about designing innovative organizations and managing people in innovative ways. (On this topic, much more to come in a certain book that I really hope will be available for purchase soon.)


If I knew what these two birds are, I’d be able to look up their affordances and figure out how to cook them real well. (In other words, I could look online for a plausible recipe.) Instead, under conditions of poultry uncertainty, I’ve canvassed (remotely, of course) my international panel of Cooking Experts. The current wisdom based on their currently frozen appearance is that what I have might be a brace of partridge, possibly best roasted quick and high.

I’ll report back.


On the cusp of something new that’s just coming into view.


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If you found this useful or thought-provoking, you should definitely share it indiscriminately with masses of people. You can find previous issues of The Uncertainty Mindset here. I’m on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.

#21: The consequences of inaction

The economic, human, and social costs of failing to take unreasonable countermeasures against coronavirus.

I’m an author, organizational sociologist, strategy professor, unsuccessful furniture maker, and Xoogler—this is yet another of my attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing.


tl;dr

  1. Coronavirus is a threat of enormous uncertainty, yet many people, businesses, and governments continue to approach it with the risk mindset—they avoid taking seemingly unreasonable countermeasures that are inconvenient, politically unpopular, and economically damaging.

  2. The consequences of not taking those unreasonable countermeasures are impossible to calculate accurately in advance—but they are likely to be staggeringly enormous and not merely economic but also human and social. They are likely to far exceed the cost of taking unreasonable countermeasures.

  3. Mounting evidence suggests that any countermeasures that look like overreaction are not only sensible, they may even be inadequate. Taking unreasonable measures early—despite their huge economic cost—is the only sane thing to do, because we have so much to lose.


The coronavirus captures the essence of true uncertainty: Unexpected in onset, with a never-before-seen combination of epidemiological characteristics, attacking a global population with no previous exposure and immunity, with no pre-validated therapy, and without an existing infrastructure for developing, producing, distributing, and administering a functioning vaccine.

The result, in country after country: Sudden explosions in coronavirus infections, suddenly overloaded healthcare systems, triage, rapidly mounting death tolls.

This was the situation in Wuhan, it is currently the situation in Lombardy and Washington state, it will soon be the situation in New York, Massachusetts, and London—and in too many other cities in Europe and the rest of the world.

So far, always too late, extreme, desperate measures are put in place: A near total shutdown of commerce and human movement or even, as in Wuhan, stringent quarantine and co-isolation of infected persons.

The world has responded to epidemics and pandemics before, but it has never had to respond to one exactly like this. No government has an already-written, already-tested playbook to deal with a coronavirus threat. So in the three months since December 1, we’ve observed a wide range of government responses.

Some governments, recognizing both the situation’s uncertainty and the potentially enormous consequences of failing to act, decided not to try and optimize, not to try and do precise cost-benefit analyses to identify the actions that resulted in the greatest benefit for the least cost. These governments took what looked like disproportionate, overly extreme measures, far too early, when the situation seemed trivial.

For instance, Taiwan may have seemed to be overreacting when it began conducting on-plane biosecurity inspections for flights originating in Wuhan at the end of December last year—well before coronavirus became even a regional pandemic. However, without exception, governments that seemed to have overreacted have not regretted doing so.

By taking measures that seemed far too extreme at the time (but later turned out to be prescient), countries like Taiwan avoided the fate that has now befallen Washington and Lombardy. This fate—healthcare systems collapsing under the weight of peak loads of a type and magnitude they were not designed to withstand—moves ineluctably and with growing speed toward New York, London, California, Spain, and France. The governments of these places have reached this point because the risk mindset they have used in understanding and reacting to the threat of coronavirus is wrong—fatally wrong.

True uncertainty makes clinging to the risk mindset fatal

The risk mindset is an approach to the world that asks: “How can I calculate my actions so that I achieve the best possible outcome?”

Using the risk mindset to see and interpret the world is only appropriate when you have full information about your actions and the outcomes those actions result in.

Let’s say the only actions available to you are either eating an apple or eating a pear. You’ve eaten both before and know that you loathe the taste of apples but pears, pears for you are a delight beyond compare. The risk mindset is ideal for making this decision. The choice is clear, because you have pretty complete information: You eat the pear.

For the risk mindset to produce clear and correct decisions about how to act requires accurate information about the situation. The risk mindset is only appropriate when you know all the possible outcomes, you know what actions you can take, and you know exactly how your actions affect your outcomes. Without knowing all these things, making decisions based on the risk mindset leads you to make the wrong decisions.

We don’t know these things in relation to the coronavirus outbreak.

But the risk mindset is so ingrained in how we think that it has infected how we think about nearly everything—even highly uncertain situations like coronavirus, where we don’t know enough for the risk mindset to be appropriate. In uncertain situations, the risk mindset promotes the illusion that inherently imprecise or unknown things can somehow be precisely calculated so that the optimal course of action can be determined. It promotes the illusion of fine-grained control over a situation where such control simply doesn’t exist.

The governments that have not overreacted in time have been approaching coronavirus outbreaks with the risk mindset. The question throughout, which leaders have agonized over, is: When does it become economically “worth it” to take incredibly expensive, politically and socially unpopular measures to respond to a coronavirus outbreak?

When there are barely any cases in-country, how could it be worthwhile to spend millions of dollars on biosurveillance and widespread testing? When there are only a couple of hundred cases in-country, how could it be worthwhile to shut down mass gatherings or force businesses to allow all but absolutely essential staff to work from home? When there are only a couple thousand cases in-country, how could it be worthwhile to essentially shut down whole cities or countries?

Consequences of insufficient action

There is now enough evidence from China, Singapore, Taiwan, Spain, Italy, France, and the UK to take for granted that any city or country that doesn’t take countermeasures that seem unreasonable at that time will be unable to control its coronavirus outbreak.

By “control,” I mean lowering the rate of spread enough that the healthcare system can treat all infected people who need treatment (those with moderate to severe symptoms) in time and with the appropriate resources (doctors, nurses, hospital beds, drugs, ventilators, etc)—“under control” does not mean eradicating the virus.

Any city or country with a severe and uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak will be affected to an extraordinary degree. What follows is a thought experiment about what’s likely to happen to the economy, to society, and to people in a severe and uncontrolled outbreak.

The rate at which people die from coronavirus infection will increase dramatically. Coronavirus-related deaths will increase dramatically as hospitals overflow with coronavirus patients with severe symptoms, vastly exceeding the healthcare system’s capacity for treatment. In the absence of sufficient treatment resources, many more of these coronavirus patients will die than if the outbreak is controlled. These will be otherwise avoidable deaths.

The rate at which people die from non-coronavirus-related health problems will increase dramatically. Those who need non-coronavirus medical care—even urgently—will be much less likely to get it. Non-coronavirus-related deaths will rise. When the existing healthcare system is filled up with only coronavirus patients, the usual load of non-coronavirus patients cannot be served. Think about it: hospitals are usually busy places even at the best of times. If you have a non-coronavirus health emergency, you will likely have to deal with it on your own instead of with the support of a functioning healthcare system. This includes anything from emergency surgery for someone hit by a car while on a bicycle to an infection that went wrong and required hospitalization and intensive care. Many of the patients who require non-coronavirus emergency or intensive care will die because they cannot get timely access to appropriate care—these will also be otherwise avoidable deaths.

A significant fraction of the workforce will get sick and be unable to work. The effects on the workforce from allowing a coronavirus outbreak to run uncontrolled by unreasonable measures will initially seem minor. Many infected workers will not even realize they are infected (research suggests that 15-20% of infected people don’t show symptoms)—but those who show symptoms will temporarily fall out of the workforce. If the spread of the disease is uncontrolled, a potentially large fraction of the population will be infected at the same time (in the US, this has been estimated to be between 10-20% of the population). The more people are infected, the more workers suddenly stop working for 2 weeks or more. Based on data from China, almost 20% of symptomatic coronavirus infections are severe or critical. Quite soon, a significant fraction of the workforce will suddenly evaporate for a few weeks at a time over the course of many months.

Demand for products and services will begin to drop. Widespread illness means disposable incomes begin to fall—this causes the first wave in declining demand for products and services. This will affect the whole economy, but especially small businesses in the hospitality, travel, and personal services industries which provide luxuries and other discretionary products and services.

Small businesses and independent traders will go temporarily or permanently out of business. Small businesses often have less excess capacity to cover disruptions; they can probably cover absent workers for a while, but not at this level. Depending on the severity of their symptoms and the type of business they run, independent traders may not be able to continue trading at all. In any case, most small businesses and independent traders don’t have the cash buffers to survive weeks or months on significantly reduced revenue from diminished demand for what they sell.

Income will drop and unemployment will rise for non-salaried workers (hourly workers or the self-employed). Those who are infected and show symptoms will be unable or less able to work. Additionally, as small businesses go out of business (whether temporarily or permanently), the workers they employ lose their jobs. Incomes dry up, rent or mortgages will still have to be paid, loan payments come due, food must be bought to feed the family. First to go is optional spending on luxuries, then even essential spending must be curtailed. The result is bad for the individuals and families affected, but in many countries, this part of the workforce is remarkably large—so what affects them affects the rest of the economy.

Demand for goods and services will drop even more. Salaried workers’ incomes will also drop and unemployment will rise. A little later, bigger businesses and their employees begin to hurt. Sales are down but most costs remain. Labor is one such cost that can be reduced quickly. Soon, salaried workers begin to see either paycuts or layoffs—they too first begin to restrict spending on luxuries, then on essentials. This compounds the demand problem and makes it more likely to turn into a vicious cycle.

Supply chains will become more fragile and will begin to break. Much of what we consume—from food to banking services to consumer electronics—is made and transported using long, complex chains of interactions that are often opaque to the end-consumer.

The bag of flour you buy in the supermarket was grown by a person, picked by a person operating a combine harvester, put on a truck and driven by a person to the mill, processed at the mill by a person operating a grain cleaner, a winnower, and a milling machine, packed by a person into retail paper sacks, shipped by a person on a series of trucks driven by more people, accepted into a warehouse by another person, loaded onto a delivery truck by yet another person, and then put on the shelf in the supermarket by another person. And that’s just an over-simplified supply chain for a bag of flour from wheat grown, processed, packed, and sold in the same country—many supply chains span multiple countries.

Supply chains consist of both objects (manufacturing equipment, packaging material, transport vehicles) and humans. If one key person in a supply chain falls ill (say, the mill’s sole truck driver) and there is no one to replace him/her, the chain breaks. If some object in the supply chain breaks or is temporarily or permanently unavailable (say, the mill runs out of the paper sacks in which flour is packaged), the chain breaks.

Each object in any supply chain also has its own supply chain—the paper used for the sacks may be produced by a Swedish paper mill, which uses equipment from Japan and Korea to process logs themselves trucked in from forests across Scandinavia and the Baltics. These supply chains are complex and fragile in themselves. But they also interact with and depend on each other. This makes the system of supply even more complex and fragile as a whole because anything that affects one supply chain is likely to affect others. If the pulp processing machine in the Swedish paper plant breaks down, and the only technician who can fix it is severely ill with coronavirus, the paper sacks don’t get made, the flour doesn’t get packed, and that sack of flour doesn’t get to the supermarket shelf on time.

Supply chains have some buffer built into them (in the form of backup staff, spare equipment, extra inventory) so they can handle a few people being ill at any time or some shortages of components. But these buffers are inherently inefficient—and supply chains are designed to be as efficient as possible. Few have so much inefficiency and buffer built into them that they can handle large swathes of the population being ill at once.

When supply chains begin to collapse, the collapses may spread through the supply system because supply chains are now so interconnected—a different, but equally devastating contagion.

I leave you to consider the implications for the economy, for people in the workforce—and for civil order—of not taking seemingly unreasonable countermeasures against a coronavirus outbreak in any city or country:

  1. A dramatic increase in otherwise avoidable coronavirus- and non-coronavirus-related deaths;

  2. A significant fraction of the workforce gets sick and cannot work temporarily;

  3. Small businesses and independent traders go out of business in alarming numbers;

  4. Incomes drop and unemployment rises for both non-salaried and salaried workers;

  5. Demand for products and services drops, probably triggering a vicious deflationary cycle;

  6. Fragile supply chains become prone to collapse, with each collapse more likely to infect the rest of the supply system.

A fatal self-delusion

It’s impossible to know exactly and in advance what the exact costs of not acting unreasonably will be. So it is impossible to interpret these unreasonable measures through the risk mindset by doing an accurate cost-benefit analysis of whether or not they are “worthwhile.” The risk mindset is an inappropriate way to see the world at this time—the world is now undeniably uncertain, not risky.

Unfortunately, the risk mindset persists at every level.

Over the last two weeks, individuals, businesses, and governments have tried to preserve normalcy in the face of undeniable evidence that normalcy is no longer appropriate. Governments refused to forcibly suspend movement and commerce. Businesses persisted in having employees come into work. Individuals went out with each other as usual. (Some leaders also want things to return to normal far earlier than is wise.)

The risk mindset seems to lead decisionmakers (whether the regular person in the street, the leader of a business, or a policymaker in government) to

  1. Assume that the unknown costs of not taking unreasonable measures are smaller than the known economic costs of taking those unreasonable measures;

  2. Believe that the situation is better understood and more controllable than it actually is.

This is how the risk mindset prevents us from responding appropriately to coronavirus threat.

A different mindset is needed now, one that acknowledges the uncertainty of the situation instead of denying it.

The uncertainty mindset is ultimately realist and pragmatic, but also imaginative. It can imagine what a future might be like given the reality of the present. What should be clear from the analysis above is that not doing everything possible to control a coronavirus outbreak is very likely to carry enormous, staggering costs that are not simply economic but social and human as well—while they cannot be calculated precisely in advance, they almost certainly will exceed the huge economic costs of even unreasonable measures taken today.

With every passing day, mounting evidence from countries that were or are deep in the trenches fighting coronavirus suggests that even measures that look like absurd overreaction are sensible and minimally precautionary. And these unreasonable measures are unavoidable: Any delay now is paid for later

Looking at the situation through the lens of the uncertainty mindset, it becomes clear that taking unreasonable measures despite their huge economic cost is the only sane thing to do—because we have so much to lose.


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If you found this useful or thought-provoking, you should definitely share it indiscriminately with masses of people. You can find previous issues of The Uncertainty Mindset here. I’m on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.

#20: Being prepared

It's easier to not be taken by surprise if you're not panicking and you're looking down the line.

I’m an author, organizational sociologist, strategy professor, unsuccessful furniture maker, and Xoogler—this is yet another of my attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing.


This week’s issue is a day late because I’ve gotten involved in some coronavirus emergency response projects. More details all the way down. Please take a look—you might be able to help. (Especially if you work in digital marketing, big data network analysis, advertising, media-buying, or at TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.)


Last week saw accounts of a crumbling healthcare system pour out of Lombardy. As if that wasn’t chilling enough, coronavirus infection rates began to spike up in France, Spain, Germany, Washington, and New York.

But even last Wednesday, no one in the UK was taking coronavirus particularly seriously.

Until then, the UK Government’s national response had been to delay significant action while attempting to contain the cases that were discovered. It did not mandate cessation of air travel, recommend closure of gathering places, or encourage companies to move to remote work. The number of new cases reported in the UK ticked up faster and faster every day.

Last Thursday, the UK announced a formal strategy: Isolate very high-risk individuals and allow the virus to sweep—slightly slowed through measures on the margin—through the rest of the population

Jaws around the world dropped in unison.

Masses of people everywhere—including prominent scientists, many of whom were epidemiologists and public health experts—publicly and privately questioned this strategy. (I was part of one such group.)

On Monday, the UK Government announced a change in strategy: Immediate initiation of some social distancing measures, mostly voluntary.

Later, they told us that the model which had driven the previous decision had been built using absurdly optimistic assumptions—which might have resulted in a quarter of a million deaths.

I’m glad they changed their strategy but it feels like too little, too late. (I can’t help but think the same is true for the US, particularly Washington, New York, California, and Massachusetts.)

Suddenly, the feeling in the air in London has changed. The streets are much quieter and the restaurants and bars are empty—either already closed or about to close. Shelves in supermarkets are bare of toilet paper and all the crisps are gone. There’s no flour to be had anywhere. The lines for checkout are long, and the carts are full of stacks of frozen pizzas and crap like that. But you can still buy beans and grains, oil, salt, sugar. People here seem to be panicking, but their response to panic is buy bizarre foods in bizarre quantities.

Good decision-making is what you need in a (very) rapidly developing situation—such as a coronavirus pandemic. But it’s hard to make good decisions while panicking.

The faster the situation develops, the more you need a realist imagination that allows you to see past hysteria while also imagining plausible outcomes that might be worse than what the crowd currently can conceive.

Being realist while being imaginative allows you to continually prepare for the bad scenarios as you envision them, while continually keeping a close eye on how things develop so that your view of possible scenarios is being continually updated. Of course, it’s crucial to be ready to change your action plan as new data becomes available.

So, this week, I want to explain how to build—and when to use—an emergency food supply. What follows is my own view of things so please consult other sources of information. To be clear, I’m definitely not saying that civil order and food supply chains will immediately collapse in a coronavirus outbreak. But it might be prudent to plan for a period when your access to food and consumables is severely limited.


Emergency food

I looked around online for a good guide to how to lay down a good emergency food store. There are many guides to stocking up on things like batteries and flashlights, but many of the guides for emergency food say to have a lot of peanut butter and energy bars or bullshit like that. They also don’t tell you how to use and maintain your store.

What is emergency food?

Emergency food should be shelf-stable at room temperature for a very long time—many months at least—without any maintenance from you. The following things fit the bill and are inexpensive:

  • Dry carbohydrates (rice, noodles, couscous, pasta, grits, flour)

  • Dry legumes (beans, lentils)

  • Dehydrated vegetables

  • Freeze-dried and dried fruit

  • Canned goods (fruit, fish, beans)

  • Sugar, salt, oil, spices

  • High-proof alcohol

  • If you’re expecting water and power cuts: Bottled water, portable stove and suitable fuel.

I’ll say more about what to buy for different scenarios later. But before that, it’s important to say that emergency food is not:

  • Normal groceries and frozen foods, like fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, and meat, frozen pizzas, and ice cream. Buy extras of these if you know there will be a temporary interruption in regular food supply.

  • Snack and treats, like chips, candy bars, and nuts. But you can buy some of these to keep around for diversity when you’re huddled in the dark eating cold canned soup for the 18th day. Just kidding. (Or am I?)

When to buy emergency food?

Stock up by buying some emergency food every time you do a grocery run—a week or two worth of carbohydrates, or legumes, or flavorings (a canned sauce or a spice pack). Stocking up gradually instead of all at once naturally creates variety in your emergency food store.

If you must buy all your emergency store at once and in a hurry, scroll to the bottom of this issue for a buying guide.

When to use emergency food

The most important thing about emergency stores is that you keep them on hand for use only in an emergency. This means buying your emergency stores and keeping them for a time in which food is no longer easily available or not available at all. You should not touch emergency stores until you can no longer buy replacements for them through regular channels.

Maintaining emergency food

  1. Store emergency food in sealed, waterproof packets—you don’t want critters in your emergency stash. This may mean repacking what you buy (reusable ziplocs or glass jars are good). Each pack should be about a week’s worth of product, to make it easier to rotate (see #4).

  2. Label everything, marking expiration dates clearly. This is especially important if you’re repacking products.

  3. Store all the emergency food in the same place, grouped by expiration month. Pick a cool, dry, dark place for storage.

  4. Rotate emergency food out by cooking and eating it, each time replacing what you’ve used with the same amount of newly purchased food. (That bit’s important.) You should never have expired food in your emergency store. A good way to do this is to set a monthly calendar entry to evaluate the emergency food store. It should take about 5 minutes to pull out the food that’s expiring soonest. Remember to immediately replace what you eat with the same amount of the same type of food (replace legumes with different legumes, carbohydrate with a different carbohydrate, etc).

What to buy

From what I’ve seen in the last week, panicking people stock up by buying haphazardly. Especially incomprehensible are those who buy 8 weeks worth of toilet roll, 3 weeks worth of assorted snacks, and nothing else.

What you buy depends on what you expect to face.

Here are a few scenarios. The first two are what most of us will face (or have faced) this year.

  1. Severe voluntary social distancing with stores still open. You have very limited ability to leave the house but regular supplies of ingredients are mostly available from your usual markets and shops. Water and power are uninterrupted. In this scenario, stock nearly all dry carbohydrates and legumes for emergency food. Keep buying fresh ingredients whenever possible—only dip into emergency supplies and cook them as needed. Life, honestly, will be much as normal except for not eating out much or at all. (This will be catastrophic for the hospitality industry.) You probably won’t need to dip much into the store.

  2. Shelter in place with stores mostly closed. You’re unable to leave the house and ingredients are available but harder to come by. Water and power are uninterrupted. Use up any fresh foods you have. After that, you have an opportunity to finally clear out the fridge and freezer. You can finally eat that jar of soup you froze last year, maybe with a slice of toasted freezer-burnt bread. In this scenario, stock nearly all dry carbohydrates and legumes. Eat through your fresh, then frozen foods—only then dip into emergency supplies. (You might need to dip into the store a bit.)

  3. Shelter-in-place with stores closed and power/water unavailable or intermittent. It’s a disaster. In this scenario, stock bottled water and meals that are ready to eat (canned or retort-pouched), as well as a gravity-fed water filter, portable stove, and fuel. Eat already-cooked food before it goes bad. Then cook first fresh, then frozen food before it goes bad. Open your fridge and freezer as infrequently as possible. When all that is exhausted, start cooking from stores, saving your ready-to-eat meals for when you run out of cooking fuel.

  4. Supply chains have failed, they’re burning the city, and you’ve barricaded yourself inside your apartment. You should stock high-calorie food bars that will aid in your escape. Why didn’t you leave sooner? I hope you have lots of cash on hand. And diamonds and antibiotics.

tl;dr: For me, coronavirus emergency food planning means buying long-store dry goods to dip into periodically if the city is on lockdown for the week or the month—in the near-term, some products might go out of stock but fresh food will probably be available enough that you won’t need to touch the emergency stock much.

Be prepared but don’t panic. Yet.

A sample shopping list

[A clarification: This is a sample store list. It’s what I’ve laid down because I like eating food that’s been processed as little as possible. If you hate rice and love pasta, get more pasta. If you need more tea, get more tea. Take a look at the list of suitable emergency store foods above. If you don’t like German Haribo Ginger-Lemon gummies, there’s no hope for you.]

Here’s a 4-week emergency food supply for 1 person. It is neither superabundant nor unnecessarily meager. It assumes water and power are both running and that you know how to cook (the Internet can be helpful here). Conveniently, it also fits into a surprisingly small box.

  • 2.5kg assorted rices (basmati, jasmine)

  • 2kg assorted pastas (including couscous and rice noodles)

  • 4.5kg assorted legumes (red/green/brown lentils, kidney/black/cannellini beans, chickpeas)

  • 1l olive oil

  • 2kg flour

  • 0.5kg sugar

  • 1kg salt

  • 6 tins of tomatoes (diced, peeled, and as sauce)

  • 8 tins of fish (tuna, mackerel, sardines)

To leaven the monotony of eating emergency food:

  • 4 bars of chocolate

  • 3 bags each of the German versions of the Haribo Gold Bears and Ginger-Lemon gummies

  • 100g of assorted teas

  • 1kg of dried fruit and nuts

Pretty austere but it’ll give you peace of mind and keep you going if you need it to.


Or you could leave your tiny city apartment and move somewhere with a garden.


Help please

In the last five days, we’ve spun up a couple of coronavirus response projects:

  1. A data-driven advertising program aimed at converting coronavirus skeptics through highly targeted stealth viral campaigns. Most people don’t truly understand why coronavirus is such a disaster. (Like these spring-breakers in Florida.) These skeptics don’t adhere to social distancing measures, so the virus continues to infect new people faster than healthcare systems can cope with. You can probably help fix this problem if you work in digital marketing, network analysis, advertising, media-buying, or at TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. You can also donate to pay for media buys or machine time. I can’t share details publicly but email me if you’re interested.

  2. A guide to coronavirus risk reduction for the food and beverage industry (which is a locus for transmission simply by its natural dynamics). This is most useful for F&B businesses in cities where a coronavirus crisis is approaching but not yet a crisis, but also for those which have been closed to help them think through what they will do when they reopen. If you’re in the hospitality business, please take a look and share widely. If you know people who can translate the guide, please send them the website link along (translation instructions are on the page). We need versions for everywhere, but especially versions in traditional and simplified Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese. Arabic, Italian, Portuguese, French, and Spanish translations are already on the way.


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If you found this useful or thought-provoking, you should definitely share it indiscriminately with masses of people. You can find previous issues of The Uncertainty Mindset here. I’m on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.

#19: Unreasonable measures

Extraordinary situations call for them.

I’m an author, organizational sociologist, strategy professor, unsuccessful furniture maker, and Xoogler—this is yet another of my attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing.


tl;dr:

  1. You should be very concerned about coronavirus based on evidence from the last week of developments. You should take action on your concern. This is not the same as panicking about coronavirus. See below for details and justification.

  2. Governments and leaders of organizations should all take disproportionately extreme, apparently unreasonable measures to limit the transmission of coronavirus. See below for details and justification.


When I sent out issue #18 last Wednesday, Italy had 2036 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection, and had reported 347 new cases (as of March 4, 2020). As of yesterday’s WHO situation report (March 10), Italy has 9172 confirmed cases, of which 1797 were new. (All the case numbers in this issue come from the WHO’s daily official situation reports.)

There is no longer any reason to believe that coronavirus response should be “measured” and “sensible” in the conventional way. Responding conventionally to the virus by doing traditional cost-benefit analyses and using the risk mindset implied by those analyses is now absurd given how the situation has developed in the last week.

Conventionally reasonable measures are now available only to countries which responded incredibly swiftly to the prospect of an outbreak and were thus able to contain it early. For other countries where the virus has been spreading, poorly contained, for several weeks, reasonable measures are no longer sufficient. The reality—there is mounting evidence—is that actions taken to slow coronavirus transmission only have clearly visible effects on new diagnosed cases numbers after 10-15 days.

This means that any effective actions taken against coronavirus in the few days before the epidemic curve shoots upward in any country will always look unreasonable and disproportionate.

By the time those actions look reasonable and appropriate, they will be too late.


Lombardy is one of the richest parts of Italy, with one of the best healthcare systems in the country. It is at the heart of the coronavirus epidemic in Italy.

As of today, Lombardy’s healthcare infrastructure appears to be well past breaking point because of coronavirus.

This system is now so far over capacity that the newly released clinical guidelines from SIAARTI (the Italian Society of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care) recommend triage of coronavirus patients requiring intensive care resources.

“Triage” is another way to say that there are now official recommendations about how to choose which coronavirus patients get the limited medical resources that often mean the difference between life and death.

Triage also happens during wars and disaster response.

You can read the SIAARTI recommendations here—in Italian, but you can translate the PDF passably using Google Translate.

(Two weeks ago, on February 26, Italy had fewer cases of coronavirus infection in total than the UK has as of today.)


So: Please be very concerned if you live in countries where the daily number of new diagnosed cases is rising rapidly or beginning to do so.

This list currently includes: Italy, Iran, Spain, France, Germany, the US, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the UK, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Outside China, there are coronavirus infections in 109 countries.


The best way to be concerned is to take precautionary measures that inconvenience you slightly (or even a lot) to be responsible to both yourself and others by slowing the spread of coronavirus infection. (Being concerned is not the same as panicking.)

If you’re like most people, you are unlikely to suffer serious ill-effects from being infected by coronavirus. If you are infected, you are also likely to show no symptoms for a few days—during some of which you will be infectious. If you accidentally infect someone who is elderly and/or has pre-existing health conditions, you will quite likely be contributing to their premature (and painful) death. Is this what you want?

The past weeks in China, South Korea, Italy, and other countries suggest that a sizeable fraction of people infected by coronavirus (around 10%) require intensive care. This means that for every 1000 people infected, 100 people are likely to require intensive care. Most healthcare systems have some buffer in their intensive care services, but not a lot. In the UK, the NHS reports about 4100 intensive care beds. Usually, about 20% of these beds are free when coronavirus is not a problem. This means that about 820 intensive care beds are free and available at any time to receive coronavirus patients—across the UK.

You can do the math yourself. A sharp uptick in coronavirus infections will quickly overwhelm this spare capacity in the UK.

(Over 8000 new cases were recorded in Italy in the 2 weeks between February 26 and March 10.)

As more infected patients are admitted to a healthcare system, medical staff become more likely to themselves become infected—this further reduces the chances that coronavirus patients who need critical care actually get it. It also reduces the chances that patients of any other sort who need intensive care get it in a timely way.

If you don’t take precautionary measures to slow the spread of coronavirus infection, you will quite likely be directly contributing to overloading the healthcare system to the point where people die who would otherwise survive. Is this what you want?

This is a realist, completely non-alarmist, view grounded in recent evidence from both Italy and China.


So, let’s assume you’re convinced: you don’t want to accidentally infect people and speed the spread of coronavirus.

The most important thing to do is avoid getting infected yourself.

Conveniently, what you do to avoid getting infected is more or less the same as what you do to avoid accidentally infecting anyone else.

You can reduce the chances you’ll get infected by washing your hands more often, making a point of not touching surfaces with your hands, and never touching your face. (Except after you’ve just washed your hands—then you can presumably touch your face all you want. But maybe you should resist.) Replace high-fives and handshakes with more amusing, non-contact modes of saying hello.

You can get infected and/or accidentally infect people whenever you are close to them. Some common situations when are you close to others include: taking the bus, traveling on a plane, going to a large sports event, going to a restaurant, and attending a conference.

There appears to be not very much definitive knowledge about how coronavirus spreads or doesn’t spread. No matter what the activity, the more people are in the same enclosed space, the longer they are together, and the closer they are to each other—the more likely it is that an infected person showing no symptoms will infect someone else accidentally. And the more diagnosed cases there are in your country, the more likely it is that there will be an asymptomatic infected person will be in that space.

This is why extraordinary, even draconian, social distancing measures should be put in place before the case loads reach the numbers that would make such measures seem “appropriate.”

Simply by reducing the frequency, duration, and proximity of social interactions, the likelihood of getting infected or accidentally infecting someone else goes down. (More here on the extraordinary social distancing measures in China, which have been remarkably effective.)

Until governments mandate social distancing by banning travel and public gatherings, the choice is left to the individual—to you.

Some questions you may want to ask yourself:

  1. Is your holiday or business travel to another country worth the (unknown) probability of accidentally causing someone else’s premature death? This probability is higher (though still unknown) if you choose to visit a country where there are both many diagnosed cases and many new diagnosed cases—both indicate that there are many more undiagnosed cases of coronavirus infection.

  2. Is going to the gig/game/meeting/conference worth the (unknown) probability of accidentally contributing to collapsing your country’s healthcare infrastructure? This probability is higher (though still unknown) the larger, more crowded, and more prolonged the event. (Here’s an example of how one such meeting seriously amplified the spread of coronavirus in the US.)

  3. Is going in to work or to attend classes worth the (unknown) probability of accidentally getting infected and then, while you’re asymptomatic, accidentally infecting other people? This probability is higher (though still unknown) the bigger and more crowded the office/school is, and the more prolonged your time is there.

Now to being purely selfish. Act pragmatically in your own self-interest, but with moderation. Make your life slightly more comfortable as you distance yourself socially. What this means is: Buy and store 2-3 weeks worth of storeable foods and other supplies. You may need a few toilet rolls too, but probably not forty or sixty of them.


At the governmental level: Being precautionary means taking disproportionately extreme measures in response to coronavirus as soon as cases are detected in-country. Immediately.

The more cases are reported in your country, the more immediate and ludicrously disproportionate those extreme measures need to be—but in 10-15 days, those measures will seem completely sensible.

How do we know this?

The first known patient was diagnosed with this coronavirus infection in China on December 1, 2019. In the three months since then, there have been different governmental responses to coronavirus at the national level.

That limited set of responses strongly suggests that:

  1. Immediate and massive governmental commitment of resources to containment (including testing, contact tracing, public education, case monitoring) can dramatically slow the transmission of the virus after the first cases are detected within a country. Taiwan is the example.

  2. Immediate and massive governmental commitment of resources to both containment (massive testing, contact tracing, case monitoring) and mitigation (including draconian-seeming, politically unpopular social distancing measures such as travel limitations and quarantine) can dramatically slow the spread of coronavirus after case numbers begin to spike upwards. The effects of these apparently disproportionately extreme measures take several weeks to become visible. At that point, the scale of the healthcare disaster even given those extreme measures is so enormous that the extreme measures are validated. China and South Korea are the examples.

  3. Case numbers begin to spike upward unless disproportionate containment measures were put in place very early. Nearly every country with coronavirus reports other than Taiwan and Singapore are the examples.

  4. Even relatively well-prepared and well-resourced healthcare systems struggle or collapse under peak load when case numbers begin to spike upwards. Italy, China, South Korea are the examples.

In the extremely unlikely event that you are a reader with influence in your government: Avoiding taking politically unpopular disproportionate measures immediately will almost certainly cause both a massive number of unnecessary deaths and massive economic disruption down the line. Is this what you want?

(If you are in fact this influential reader, please get in touch if I can help make this make sense to the people you need to convince—scroll all the way down for contact information.)


Governments in the US and UK have failed to take any extreme measures so far.

So it falls on individuals to do so, especially in countries where new case rates are beginning to spike upward.

Leaders of organizations and/or people with influence in government have an especially important role to play.

If you are one of these powerful, important people, you may want to ask yourself:

  1. Is it better to take an action that seems unreasonably extreme but will likely be effective early OR to wait until much more extreme actions seem reasonable but are unlikely to work?

  2. Is it better to pay a high price now or pay a potentially much greater, possibly crippling price later?

If your answer is: “I’m willing to be that leader who really leads, who does the unpopular but right thing now! Bring on the unreasonable, disproportionately extreme actions that actually make loads of sense given all the evidence we now have,” then here are two for you to consider.

Immediately:

  1. For two weeks, renewable weekly, move your team/division/organization to working remotely by default (schools can do this too)—grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

  2. For two weeks, renewable weekly, cancel all nonessential travel for employees by default—grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

(Really, are these actually so disproportionate or unreasonably extreme? If you are one of these leaders, please get in touch if I can help make this make sense to the people you need to convince—scroll all the way down for contact information.)


You’ve Got What It Takes. (I hope.)


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If you found this useful or thought-provoking, you should definitely share it indiscriminately with masses of people. You can find previous issues of The Uncertainty Mindset here. I’m on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.

#18: Coronavirus

Time to apply the precautionary principle.

I’m an author, organizational sociologist, strategy professor, unsuccessful furniture maker, and Xoogler—this is yet another of my attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing.


I was in Philadelphia over the weekend talking about what makes an industry flip into one obsessed with continual innovation (not always a good thing) and what leadership should look like in an increasingly uncertain restaurant industry.

Those who work in restaurants have a better visceral understanding of how uncertainty is different from risk (I explain why in the book). But most other people don’t really get it. Nor do they understand how important it is to accurately understand which type of situation you’re facing.

(For a lightweight primer on risk vs uncertainty, you could take a look at issue #1.)

Understanding whether a situation is uncertain or risky is vital because—my long-standing thesis—the world is becoming increasingly uncertain.

The reasons for this are legion, but the most important ones are:

  1. The world system now consists of many increasingly complex and highly optimized subsystems—everything from global banking to supply chains, from immigration to the exchange of data.

  2. These subsystems are becoming more interconnected, and

  3. These subsystems are becoming more interdependent.

(3) means that something which destabilizes one subsystem is more likely to destabilize other subsystems. (2) means destabilization is more likely to spread quickly through the connections between subsystems. (1) means subsystems are more likely to be destabilized by a perturbation. In turn, this means that accurately predicting the behavior of the world system or any of its subsystems becomes nearly impossible.

Understanding that we’re confronting growing uncertainty is not an academic conceit. You’re likely to be really fucked if you respond to a truly uncertain situation by adopting a risk-management approach.

Over dinner on Monday, conversation turned, as it increasingly does, to the coronavirus. (The ship has sailed on calling it 2019-NCoV or even COVID-19.)

The following things seem important:

  1. The asymptomatic infectious period is currently unpredictable in length—most seem to show symptoms in 2 weeks but cases have been reported of 19 and 27 day incubation periods.

  2. The severity of symptoms seems to vary extremely widely among those affected—a small proportion become severely ill and die while the vast majority have mild (or possibly even no) symptoms.

  3. Widespread travel bans have not yet been instituted, and mass gatherings have only been cancelled or prohibited relatively recently.

  4. It may be possible to get reinfected after recovery—though it’s unclear whether there actually was reinfection, and if yes, if it was with the same or a different strain of the coronavirus.

  5. An approved and effective vaccine is unlikely to be widely available within the year.

  6. The global population is immunologically naive to this virus.

Taken together, the only logical conclusion is that a large and still growing population of apparently healthy but infectious people are currently out and about, and have been unknowingly infecting others for an unpredictably long time.

As the world is now extremely well-connected by air travel, these asymptomatic but infectious people are likely to be quite dispersed—and the long asymptomatic period combined with variable symptom severity means they’ll be hard (or even impossible) to detect. If reinfection is possible, that considerably compounds the problem.

The lightweight containment strategies which most affected countries have been using focus on identifying and isolating transmission chains (tracing the chain of infected people backwards). This approach is relatively undisruptive and probably effective in containing infectious disease outbreaks that are more like historic ones have been.

But the specific characteristics of coronavirus mean these lightweight containment strategies probably won’t work. It’s hard to contain a virus by tracing transmission chains when infected people can be contagious for many days before they show symptoms of infection.

China seemed to very quickly go past containment into mitigation. At the moment, these expensive mitigation measures seem to be bearing some fruit as the epidemiological curve in China flattens down. That same curve is trending upwards in the rest of the world—and few other states have the apparatus necessary to nearly completely shut down traffic and commerce in cities of the size (and areas of the extent) that China has.

If containment efforts fail (which seems to be happening) and mitigation measures—which will necessarily include widespread travel bans, mandatory suspension of mass events, school/work shutdowns, and other crushingly expensive and politically/socially unpopular decisions—aren’t put in place very soon, a sizeable proportion of the world’s population could quickly be infected.

Many commentators who brush off pandemic concerns and the idea of introducing widespread mitigation measures as paranoia or overreaction have noted that the flu kills more people every year than coronavirus has since the outbreak began.

This is true, but a specious argument.

The global population is immunologically experienced with the flu, and there is an existing infrastructure for developing, producing, and distributing a validated vaccine for every flu season. Neither is true for coronavirus.

The rate at which infected patients die from coronavirus is low now when they can receive timely and appropriate care. If there is a pandemic, the mortality rate will inevitably rise as healthcare systems reach, then exceed capacity. It is a peak flow problem. Mortality rates, incidentally, are unlikely to rise only linearly with infection rates.

But that’s not the worst of it. The real impact of globally pandemic coronavirus is that it will disrupt global supply chains enough that the disruption will spread to other world subsystems. If this happens, the impact globally will soon far exceed the loss of life directly caused by coronavirus infection.

Disrupt electronics supply chains and cellphones and laptops become more expensive or entirely unavailable—but really this is not so very important. Disrupt medical equipment and pharmaceutical supply chains and patients (with coronavirus or other diseases) die who would otherwise recover, while long-term healthcare costs go up—this is vitally important. Disrupt food supply chains and food prices rise, then severe food shortages appear—with the potential for triggering civil unrest. These supply chains are complex and highly optimized and thus fragile and susceptible to disruption.

More generally, our world economy now depends on continual growth. It will be severely affected by the massive and prolonged economic contraction coronavirus will cause. It is entirely plausible that many countries will enter prolonged recessions.

Despite the enormous potential danger to what might melodramatically be described as world civilization, most national and international health organizations seem to be taking a risk-management approach by choosing lower-cost containment strategies instead of moving quickly to much more expensive, politically unpopular mitigation strategies. Unsurprisingly, they have been weighing benefits against costs when deciding between containment and mitigation, as is appropriate in a risk situation when the range of possible outcomes is clear and thus costs and benefits of different actions are clear as well.

The problem is: This coronavirus epidemic is a situation of true and great uncertainty, not of risk.

While the costs of containment and mitigation are relatively clearly understood, the range of possible outcomes and their relative probabilities is unknown. Coronavirus might destroy the globalized civilization we’ve built up over the last few decades. Given the evidence of the last two days alone, coronavirus is not going to fizzle out like SARS did. How can the benefits of containment and mitigation be compared against each other when their consequences are shrouded in uncertainty?

Put plainly, containment looks cheap compared to mitigation. But conventional cost-benefit analyses don’t—and cannot—address how catastrophic it could be to get the coronavirus response strategy wrong.

Approaching the inherent uncertainty of a potential coronavirus pandemic with a risk-management mindset is likely to be a recipe for disaster.


I’ve been getting emails asking for the newsletter to go biweekly because some people are experiencing New Yorker syndrome. (I think that’s a compliment.) If you have thoughts, please reply to this issue to tell me what you think.


Irresistible.


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If you found this useful or thought-provoking, you should definitely share it indiscriminately with masses of people. You can find previous issues of The Uncertainty Mindset here. I’m on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.

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